Friday, January 1, 2010

Eternal Life: A New Vision- Book Review

I've read a few books by John Shelby Spong now. Spong is among the handful of Christian (maybe post-Christian) writers who has had a pretty big impact on how I view Christianity and the church. And, I've always been obsessed with the afterlife. So, when I heard he had written his "final" book on this particular subject, I had to pick it up. Eternal Life: A New Vision is the title.

Spong takes on the subject using an interesting technique. The book is mostly a spiritual autobiography.  But, he overlays his individual spiritual development on top of the journey man has taken over time going from primitive religion to a more complex "modern" religion to what Spong claims will be a post-religious world.  There are times in this book (and others by Spong) where he comes across as angry with the church and he tends to overstate his case against the anthropomorphic and hands-on god we were taught in Sunday school.  If you can get by this, I think he has a lot of very important things to say.  What I found particularly interesting in this book is that while the events of our lives are completely different, Spong and I  have been on a very similar spiritual path from the simplistic faith of our childhood to feeling it is all slipping away to a what we feel is a more real and realistic faith.  As Spong attacks the idols we've made of scripture, the church and even Christianity I think many will feel disoriented and even angry.  Spong doesn't duck the hard questions, the criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular.  There were times when I felt I just wanted to put the book down because it seemed like an demolition of Christianity.  But, I resisted that an pressed through to the end and I'm glad I did.

It's always cool when I find someone else shares an experience I did, because I was one weird little kid.  I remember the prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.".  Now I'm sure that millions (billions?) of kids around the world have said that prayer trillions of time. Most of them crawl into bed and think nothing of it.  But, not me and not Spong. As he puts it "That prayer made it quite clear that death was an option for me.  It also associated death with going to sleep, with darkness and with the night, while identifying waking with the dawn, the daylight and even the resurrection."  As a child, I suffered with insomnia, scared to sleep because to sleep meant I might die and to die meant I might go to hell.  I hadn't put that all together consciously until I was an adult.  BTW, we taught another version to Kayla and Shayna.  "Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  Guide me safely through the night and wake me with the morning light."

The bulk of the book is about Spong's dealings with death of loved ones and acquaintances and about his spiritual journey.  He gets into redefining what God means to him now, in a way very similar to Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" which I reviewed recently.  She talks about it from a global and historical perspective.  Spong comes at it from both a personal and a historical perspective.  He talks about how his view of Jesus has evolved also from being God incarnate to a man who fully fulfilled his potential.  A lot of this is probably a rehashing of concepts he has expressed elsewhere. I did love his definition of faith as "faith has become therefore not the task of believing the unbelievable, but he task of living, loving and being.  The mission of faith is no longer to convert:  it is to transform the world to that every life will have a  better chance to live fully and thus to commune with the source of life; to love wastefully and thus to commune with the source of love, and to find the 'courage to be' and thus to commune with the Ground of Being."

Finally, Spong does work his away around to discussing life after death (after he has redefined life) and spoken about how we are all part of one greater consciousness.  He does answer the question "Do you believe in life after death?" in the affirmative.  He does believe that we will have a personal life after our bodies have ceased to function.  He does not know if we will know or see our loved ones again.  An honest answer.  But, he does point out that none of us is an independent creature. What we are is what we are in relation to each other.  So, we cannot be, apart from being in relationship.

Overall, I found the book most definitely worthwhile.  I am learning to live with uncertainty.  I appreciate the fact that Spong does not overreach and answer questions that he simply doesn't know the answer to.  But, some may find the book unsatisfying in that regard. There's no denying that, at the very least, there is a veil beyond which we cannot see.  As Carly Simon put it in her song "Life is Eternal" (that I'm listening to right now), death is (only) a horizon.  The horizon is the limit of our sight.  We can make some educated guesses.  But, we will only truly know once we get there. 


(Carly Simon/Teesa Gohl)

I've been doing a lot of thinking
About growing older and moving on
Nobody wants to be told that they're getting on
And maybe going away
For a long, long stay
But just how long and who knows
And how and where my spirit will go
Will it soar like Jazz on a saxophone
Or evaporate on a breeze
Won't you tell me please
That life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight
Save the limit of our sight

Here on earth I'm a lost soul
Ever trying to find my way back home
Maybe that's why each new star is born
Expanding heaven's room
Eternity in bloom
And will I see you up in that heaven
In all it's light will I know you're there
Will we say the things that we never dared
If wishing makes it so
Won't you let me know
That life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight
Save the limit of our sight




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8 comments:

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Sounds interesting. I need to read my other Spong books before getting to this one.

Makes me think of this: http://tinyurl.com/buckley-eternal-life

Anonymous said...

I'm 58 - expect life until 85 or so - not quite another 30 years. I want to be cremated - it's cheaper, till my ashes into my garden. To me the body isn't not who I am but I do believe in life after. Mark Twain describes a soul who arrives and can't wait to collect his crown, harp, robe and wings. As he makes his way to the clouds to sit and sing Hallujah's, he sees harps laying about - dumped. After about 3 hours of singing, he's tired and leaves the clouds and tries the wings. Bumps into everything. He initially gets what he thought was coming, only to realize that maybe walking on streets of gold isn't all that impressive if its everywhere.

I rather like the Urantia book description but it seems kind of Sci-Fi also. You begin life as you left this one - still imperfect, still full of ignorance and are allowed time to find those who you want, loved ones, etc. Then you begin to learn about it all, the greatness of God, the universe, etc and you move from a being of imperfection to a perfect one - from merely exactly who you were when you died to one who can stand the presence of the Creator of all and it takes a long long time.

I rather like the idea that dying is the beginning of learning what it was all about in the first place along side all beings from all planets from all the universe. Part of me thinks of heaven as being like the bar scene of the first Star Wars - not just humans but beings from this vast huge, magnificant universe. Imagine the questions and desires if we get to learn it all - the physics, the depth and scope of all we have to explore to get to the awesomeness that created it all.

One other thing that is very personal to me - and that is that I believe that since we all go on to heaven despite our particular horribleness here on earth - I also believe that before I get to move beyond the first awakening, that I will be told or reminded my errors. I do beleive the desire to make right will be strong and I personally believe my first learning experience will be to apologize to all I have ever harmed. This is how I feel - nothing more. It is how I explain to myself what happens to those like Hitler or an ax murderer. They will apologize to all they have harmed - in person, up close, face to face and until that is managed, they sit and wait for the next soul. It isn't hell, it is the beginning of a new life - one that has been cleansed by our own souls desire to set right what we set wrong here. Just my feeling, my view.

Donna - okiedragon

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Great thoughts, Donna! Whenever this topic is brought up I usually think of the Robyn Williams/ Cuba Gooding Jr. movie, What Dreams May Come. It had some rather interesting views of Heaven and Hell, I need to watch it again, but as I recall they were basically tailored to each individual and heavily influenced by our viewpoints in life.

brian said...

Donna,

As I've studied Near Death Experiences and just used my intuition, I've come to believe pretty similarly to what you believe. I've never it desirable to sing songs for 10,000 years or sit around playing harps or walking streets of gold. I think a heaven with no challenges would be extremely boring.

I believe we are not perfected instantly but still have work to do once we pass beyond this life. I believe we will each have a "life review" where the consequences of our actions done here will be revealed to us. But, the only judgment will be the judgement we lay upon ourselves. Some may experience this as "torment".

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm 48. I have no idea how many years I have left. But, it's almost certainly less than the number I've had so far and I know they will just fly by. So, I plan to leave each and every day between now and then to the fullest.

Peace,
Brian

Anonymous said...

I always tell others to look for me - I'll be wearing a red dress - and I don't know why red - here I don't wear red but look for me anyway - I'll be dressed in red.

Donna - okiedragon - can't remember my goo-goo-googly self.

Cindi said...

Hey Brian..think this might be the first time I've commented here.

I picked up this book by Spong at Border's one day while waiting for Beth to get off work. I skipped right to the last chapter where he discusses his own personal beliefs on eternal life. He votes yes. I also tend to agree with your view in the above comment..

"""I believe we are not perfected instantly but still have work to do once we pass beyond this life. I believe we will each have a "life review" where the consequences of our actions done here will be revealed to us. But, the only judgment will be the judgment we lay upon ourselves. Some may experience this as "torment""""


although I think being freed from these bodies of flesh will remove the veil on our minds and hearts and speed the process up considerably. I've also been reading a bit of what Spong has to say here and there on the internet. About his beliefs about the Christmas story and the Resurrection. Sometimes I am reluctant to read stuff this "post Christian" since I figure I am already tumbling down the slippery slope at breakneck speed :)

Cindi....

brian said...

Cindi,

I understand what you mean about being reluctant to pick some things up to read. It's kind of scary abandoning the faith of my youth. But, I've committed myself to pursuing truth in spite of everything. So far, what I've found is while many idols have been torn down from their high places, I'm not left with nothing, as I feared. As I was reading Spongs's book and his spiritual autobiography was so similar to mine I wondered where he'd end up because it might be an indication of where I'll end up. I was relieved to find out that he still has his faith.

Another fascinating book was Anthony Flew's "There Is A God". Flew was a Christian in his youth, abandoned Christianity and was one of the most vocal atheistic apologists for decades. In his 80s, he returned to being a theist (although he is not a Christian).

Peace,
Brian

Portia said...

Great book review. I had been scouring the web for something on this topic tonight, and of course, I had to make a visit by your site. Nice catching up on your recent thoughts, and can't wait to check this one out.

About the prior post on Christmas, I hope you will have many joyful ones to come. My mom still wraps presents, and I'm more than twice Shayna's age :) I told her that last year's gift of a ring was my BEST present, even after this Christmas. Something about getting a ring from your mom, when you haven't met your life partner yet, that makes you feel LOVED!!!